Do I Need a License to Start a Cupcake Business from Home?

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Wading through the muck of licensing requirements can seem daunting for any startup business, but food businesses face an extra layer of regulations linked to commercial kitchens. If you’re interested in starting a cupcake business from home, your local health department can walk you through the twists and turns of making sure your home kitchen can be used legitimately for commercial production.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

You’ll need a business license to start a cupcake business from home. You’ll also need to license your home kitchen for cupcake production in accordance with the specific laws in your state.

Cottage Kitchen Regulation Basics

Fortunately, you probably won’t need a full-fledged commercial kitchen to implement your home-based cupcake business plan. Most states have some form of cottage kitchen licensing system in place for small-scale operators making relatively low-hazard foods. Exact regulations vary and you may need to tinker with your recipes and your goals to comply with local requirements. However, if you’re able to do so, you may be able to save considerable amounts of money on kitchen rental.

The rationale behind cottage kitchen laws rests on the idea that many small-scale operators don’t really need all the infrastructure of a commercial kitchen to produce food safely. Cupcakes often use dairy and eggs, which are considered potentially hazardous foods in their uncooked states, but once they are cooked into cupcakes that are reasonably shelf stable in the short term, that is, they don’t need ongoing refrigeration. To keep your process compliant with cottage kitchen regulations in your state, however, you may need to develop a frosting recipe that doesn’t use any uncooked dairy such as cream or butter.

You’ll still have to pay for a cottage kitchen license and the cost of permitting and inspection may even end up being comparable to the bill for licensing a full-fledged commercial kitchen. However, you’ll be able to save considerable amounts of money by avoiding major expenses for fixtures that are required for commercial kitchens, such as three-compartment sinks and ventilation systems with automatic fire suppression components.

Cupcake Cottage Kitchen Checklist

  • Permitting and licensing. Learn what your local health department requires and obtain the necessary permits and inspections. Start a conversation with the inspector in your area so you can follow up with questions and concerns.
  • Layout. Rethink your kitchen space so it will work for both your home cooking needs and your business production systems. It’s ideal to keep your cupcake production and storage space separate from your personal pantry.
  • Recipes. Develop recipes that will comply with local cottage kitchen requirements. Avoid ingredients that will require your finished product to be refrigerated. Ingredients such as eggs, which can be cooked into a cake that you can keep at room temperate, are acceptable in many states.
  • Scheduling. Create a cleaning and production schedule so your commercial baking won’t interfere with your home cooking and your personal meals won’t get in the way of your business operations.
  • Marketing. Build a marketing plan that draws on your strengths as a cottage industry. Emphasize the personal elements that you bring to your venture and the added care and attention to detail that can come with a cottage kitchen business plan.

Cottage Kitchen Advantages

Aside from the considerable savings on commercial kitchen rental, starting a cupcake business from home is extremely convenient. You’ll have no commuting time. You can even break up the parts of the process into manageable chunks that sync with your other daily routines. For example, you can prepare your icing in advance. After you bake your cupcakes, you can do other chores or enjoy family time while they cool, and then you can frost and decorate them at your leisure.

Because cupcakes are friendly pastries that customers tend to associate with happy occasions such as birthday parties, you can play up the cottage kitchen angle in your marketing. Cupcake business names lend themselves nicely to images and phrases linked to home and hearth. Even using your own name as part of your cupcake business name reinforces this sense that your cupcakes have been made by a real human being in a space where you could enjoy a cup of coffee and a conversation.

If you use your home kitchen for a home-based cupcake business, you may also be able to reap tax advantages. The IRS allows you to take deductions for business use of your home as long as you carefully document the difference between business and personal use. Because your kitchen will undoubtedly be used for personal purposes as well, these tax savings may be contingent on designating certain areas, such as storage or dedicated counter and oven space, for exclusive business use. Talk to your accountant about the nuances of tax deductions for home-based businesses.

Cottage Kitchen Disadvantages

Although baking your cupcakes in your home kitchen will circumvent the considerable expense of a commercial kitchen buildout and will save you money on rent, it may also limit your capacity to grow your cupcake business. Some states have limits on allowed earnings for businesses operating out of commercial kitchens, which can range from $5,000 to $50,000 annually. These figures refer to gross rather than net sales so your actual earnings will be considerably less once you subtract the costs of ingredients, marketing, labor, licenses and vehicle expenses, to name just a few. Because of these limitations, a home-based cupcake business is likely to be more of a hobby than a mature enterprise.

Even in states where there are no limits on cottage kitchen sales, the very nature of working out of a home-based kitchen poses built in limitations. Even a reasonably large home kitchen has limited counter space. You can frost a large batch of cupcakes considerably more efficiently if you can spread them out on a large work surface than if you can only do a few at a time before moving them, finding precious space to store the completed product and then setting up the space again for the next round.

You’ll also run into limitations with purchasing and storing ingredients. Most residential homes don’t have nearly as much storage room as a commercial space designed specifically for large-scale production. As a result, you’ll have to make more frequent trips to the store and buy in smaller quantities. This will take extra time and you may have to pay more for ingredients because you won’t be able to purchase in bulk.

Starting a Cupcake Business Online

Once you make your cupcakes in your home kitchen, you’ll need strategies for getting them into customers’ hands. An online cupcake business saves you the time you’d spend running a retail store or staffing a booth at a farmers market. However, you may run into limitations from regulations addressing how you can ship the cupcakes you produce in your home kitchen.

Although specific regulations vary considerably from state to state, you’ll probably be able to ship your cupcakes to customers within your home state even if they live at the other end of the state. However, shipping to customers in other states may require regulation by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and this will probably entail more hassle and expense than would make sense for a home-based cupcake business.

Design your website to appeal to customers in your specific geographic areas. Link your themes and recipes to local events, personalities and ingredients. Develop a marketing plan based on relationships and then enjoy the convenience of online order management to free you up for the enjoyable work of making and decorating cupcakes.

References

About the Author

Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.